Dhaka police arrest journalist under draconian law for report criticizing high prices

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Dhaka police arrest journalist under draconian law for report criticizing high prices Activists from left-wing student organizations protest the arrest of Bangladesh journalist Shamsuzzaman, around Dhaka University, March 29, 2023.

Dhaka police on Wednesday arrested a journalist under a draconian law based on a complaint that his report quoting a laborer criticizing high prices “tarnished the government’s image,” a copy of the complaint showed.

The journalist’s arrest under the Digital Security Act drew condemnation from the opposition and other groups who see it as a sign of an increasingly repressive government cracking down on its critics ahead of the national election scheduled for December or January 2024.

A copy of the complaint against the journalist, national daily Prothom Alo’s Shamsuzzaman, showed it was filed by a ruling Awami League member, Md. Golam Kibria, in Dhaka’s Tejgaon police station, against a report published online on March 26, Bangladesh’s independence day.

The report, the complaint obtained by BenarNews said, was aimed at “creating confusion among the people about Bangladesh’s independence, questioning Bangladesh’s achievements and tarnishing the government image.”

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal confirmed the arrest of Shamsuzzaman, a staff correspondent for the news organization.

Sajjad Sharif, executive editor of Prothom Alo, told BenarNews that his correspondent wrote a report based on comments from average Bangladeshis on the country’s independence day.

He said the report quoted a day laborer Zakir Hossain as saying: “What is the meaning of independence when we cannot manage food. [I] sweat at the market. We need independence guaranteeing fish, meat and rice.”

Sharif refuted the complainant’s allegations.

“This is absolutely baseless that we filed the story to create confusion about Bangladesh’s independence and the war of independence. Prothom Alo’s stated policy is, ‘we are pro-independence and the war of independence of Bangladesh.’”

“Shamsuzzaman is not a thief, robber or terrorist. He is a journalist. We are under pressure to do journalism.”

Critics of the government – mostly journalists, cartoonists, activists, entrepreneurs, educators and students – have been targeted by the controversial Digital Security Act. The act was passed in September 2018 after the ruling Awami League came to power for a third consecutive term.

While figures for last year are not available, Bangladesh saw a nearly ninefold increase in cases filed under the Digital Security Act in 2021 compared to the previous year.

These cases were filed for perceived online criticism of officials, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and her father, the country’s founder, according to a leading human rights organization.

Opponents have noted that Hasina’s administration has increasingly and brazenly targeted her critics and journalists, using state machinery and oppressive laws. The issue has come to the attention of other democracies and rights groups as well.

Meanwhile, Prothom Alo‘s Sharif acknowledged that the report created some confusion because the news outlet used a wrong photo on Facebook – of a child selling flowers – with the laborer’s quote.

“There was a mismatch between the photo of the child and the quote. In less than half an hour, we removed the story, and gave a correction note with the story when we noticed the discrepancy,” Sharif said.

A television channel owned by the husband of an Awami League lawmaker aired a news story that Prothom Alo published a false story. The channel interviewed the child who was selling flowers, who said he was paid a small amount for posing for the photo.

The Awami League member who filed the complaint about Shamsuzzaman’s report referred to the TV channel’s story.

Obaidul Quader, ruling party secretary general, told journalists that the report was “politically motivated.”

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), left-leaning parties and other bodies condemned Shamsuzzaman’s arrest

“What is the offense of this journalist? I do not understand. He has simply reported the fact. It was a quote from a common man. He just presented it in the story,” Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, secretary general of the BNP, told journalists.

 “Where is the offense if a man feels hunger on the independence day, if he feels deprived and speaks about it, and if he questions what benefit independence has brought him?”


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